Arundhati Roy should have acted more responsibly. But, so should have we

Cover photo: Manish Swarup/AP Photo

If you happen to follow news outlets on social media, chances are you have already read the headlines about Arundhati Roy’s controversial comments about the Indian and Pakistani armies. Arundhati was heard saying in a 2-minute clip snipped from a lecture she delivered in 2011 that unlike the Indian army “the Pakistani military was never used against its own people”.

Naturally, there was a massive outrage from people in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, followed by a backlash to the outrage. As the controversy unfolds in real-time, it’s worth examining just what happened in the span of the last few days that put Arundhati Roy, a well respected social activist, in hot water with the press and the public.

The controversial speech

Arundhati Roy probably should have acted more responsibly. But so should have we

The 2-minute clip where she apparently made the statement was widely circulated on social media this week. She was heard claiming that since India’s birth, the country had been waging war on its own people and that Pakistan had never deployed its army against its people the way India had.

The repercussions were almost immediate. People wasted no time in pointing out the Pakistani army’s role in massacring over 3 million people in the then East Pakistan in 1971 and the sustained poverty and the plunder of the resource-rich Balochistan province.

She was branded a liar, hypocrite and pseudo-intellectual.

Some said her selective blindness to the bloody genocide through which Bangladesh emerged was appalling and that she was desperately in need of a history lesson. Many in the press tore into her supposed anti-Indian sentiments.

The issue lies with her ill-conceived idea to contrast the severity of the force used by the Indian and Pakistani armies on the people of their own country. In trying to illustrate the severity of the Indian state’s crimes against its own people, she unintentionally reduced the struggles of Bangladeshis who fought hard to obtain their freedom as well denigrated the continued oppression of the Baloch people as they are deprived the riches of their own land.

Read more: Kashmir, a paradise lost?

Unintended though it may have been, to many people who still grieve over the indelible trauma of the past (and for the Baloch, the present), she seemed like an apologist for the Pakistani army.

Roy’s humble apology

Arundhati Roy probably should have acted more responsibly. But so should have we

On Wednesday, Arundhati Roy said people unintentionally “say something thoughtless or stupid” at some point in their lives, adding that what she devoted to words in her writing was far more significant than what she “might say extempore in the course of a freewheeling talk”.

The author said further that her opinion on what Islamabad was doing in Balochistan and the “genocide that the Pakistan Army committed in Bangladesh has never been ambiguous” and were reflected in her writings. To support her claim, she referenced two examples of her literary works, one of them being the novel ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ published in 2017. In it, one of the main characters, an Indian Intelligence Officer, Biplab Dasgupta aka Garson Hobart, who has served in Kashmir, says:

“It is true we did—we do— some terrible things in Kashmir, but… I mean what the Pakistan army did in East Pakistan—now that was a clear case of genocide. Open and shut.

But are we asking the right questions?

Arundhati Roy probably should have acted more responsibly. But so should have we

At the risk of sounding like the devil’s advocate, I would wager that Arundhati Roy never explicitly intended to malign Bangladeshis or the Baloch. Her comments lacked nuance and were disappointing given the standard to which we hold the wordsmith, but with that said and done, I do question whether they deserved such intense scrutiny at the cost of omitting what the rest of her 90-minute lecture was about from the discussion.

Read more: What is happening in Hong Kong? Answers you need to know

The now infamous 2-minute clip of hers that went viral was extracted from a 90-minute lecture from 2011. Arundhati, who was reading out from her essay ‘Democracy’s Failing Light’ at a conference on Democracy and Dissent in China and India at the University of Westminster in the UK, talked about the way the Indian state became a colonizer immediately shaking off the shackles of colonialism itself. She named place after place that the Indian state has waged war on within its boundaries since its inception, from Kashmir and Telangana to Manipur and Mizoram to Goa, embarking on a campaign of suppression to consolidate its rule over the lands.

Anyone who watches the full video will understand that she is trying to make a point here about the bias of the international community in giving Pakistan its fair share of negative coverage for the brutality of its militarism, while simultaneously shying away from depicting India as anything but a bastion of democracy when many of its own people have been reduced to second class citizens.

In this context, her contention that India has ‘perpetually been at war’ with its own people does seem to make sense.

Furthermore, this 2-minute snippet miraculously resurfaced a few days after Arundhati Roy penned a searing opinion piece in the New York Times against PM Narendra Modi’s ambitions in Kashmir and India at large.

Arundhati minced no words saying, “Given my views on what is happening in Kashmir now, it is not surprising that Hindu Nationalists are rushing to generate outrage over this exciting new/old canard they have dug up about my supposed denial of the genocide in Bangladesh and the deeds of the Pakistan Army in Pakistan.”

The Yellow Press

With distrust in the media growing by the day, one must be ever vigilant of the content one comes across online. The yellow press relies on clickbaity headlines which draw us in to confer upon us details of the juiciest sort. The resulting outrage encourages us to share more and more, thus motivating these outlets to concoct headlines that are even more removed from reality.

Even reputable news outlets have their slip-ups, quoting people out of context and sometimes downright misquoting them. Only by admitting when one is mistaken and taking actual steps to correct said mistakes can these outlets regain the trust of their readers.

In this day and age, we must be conscious of both how we consume information and what information we put back out into the world. Let’s not let our outrage get the best of us.

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The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh

My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes
Told me that he wanted help
Before his country dies;
Although I couldn’t feel the pain
I knew I had to try.
Now I’m asking all of you
To help us save some lives
Bangla Desh, Bangla Desh

It’s been 48 years and a day since George Harrison crooned “Bangla Desh” over his guitar at a pair of benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden. Forever memorializing both his friendship with Ravi Shankar and the image of the recording artist as a good global citizen.

The harrowing backgrounds

In November 1970, the Bhola cyclone had ravaged East Pakistan and West Bengal. Killing 500,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Then, as if to conspire with nature, the Pakistani army launched one of the most brutal military slaughters in modern history against the people of the East. Machine-gunning crowds of civilians, destroying whole villages and putting the torch to the dense slums of Dhaka.

An artist’s call of duty

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh

Helplessly staring at the events from afar, Ravi Shankar set about to raise around $25,000.

First through the sale of his album, Joi Bangla, and then through a charity concert of his own. In the depth of his melancholy, he reached out to his friend George Harrison one day in Los Angeles.

“I was in a very sad mood, having read all this news, and I said, ‘George, this is the situation. I know it doesn’t concern you, I know you can’t possibly identify…’ But while I talked to George he was very moved, he felt very deeply, and he said, ‘Yes, I think I’ll be able to do something.’” Harrison himself later reflecting on the momentous occasion said, “The Concert For Bangladesh happened because of my relationship with Ravi … I said, ‘If you want me to be involved, I think I’d better be really involved,’ so I started recruiting all these people.”

As Shankar himself recounted in an interview published in the Rolling Stones magazine in 1971

The project began in earnest during the last week of June 1971, five or six weeks before the event took place on 1st August with Harrison as the principal mover, gathering musicians, making the phone calls, getting the commitments and setting up the show.

Concert for Bangladesh

Around the middle of July, the upcoming concert by “George Harrison and Friends” was announced, via a minuscule ad buried in the back pages of the New York Times.

On Sunday, August 1 1971, Shankar, Harrison and those “friends” – among them Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Ringo Starr and the band, Badfinger – staged rock’s first mass act of philanthropy, for the 400,000-capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden, New York.

Steering clear of the complex geopolitics that was behind the near radio silence of the American media, Harrison chose instead to focus on the human face of the crisis. His audibly distraught voice was an appeal to the basic humanity of the people listening, a call for solidarity that defied the limitations of human compassion.

Red tapes

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh 3
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Marty Lederhandler/AP/REX/Shutterstock (6596757a) Harrison Shankar Former Beatle George Harrison, left, is shown at a press conference at the Abkco Industries offices in New York.

Hosting the concert might have had its difficulties. But getting the nearly $243,000 it raised to the people it was intended for was a monster of a task in its own right.

Despite Harrison’s noble intentions, Pattie Boyd, his first wife, reported that Harrison believed that some of it “went walkabout”. “It was uncharted territory, the scale of it,” said Jonathan Clyde, of the Beatles’ Apple group in an interview with The Guardian in 2011. “The money did eventually reach Bangladesh, although perhaps not in time to help the refugees at that point. The big mistake was that Unicef wasn’t chosen beforehand, and so the IRS [the US tax service] took the view that because the charity wasn’t involved in the mounting of the concert, they’d take their cut. This distressed George hugely, it really angered him. There was an ongoing tussle for years, but I’m afraid even now the IRS still take their slice.” 

The legacy

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh 4

But the legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh did not end there; rather, it expanded. The concert and subsequent album and film have since raked in millions for Unicef. It went on to fund projects not only in Bangladesh but in trouble spots from Angola to Romania, and even in the Horn of Africa. According to music journalist Mikal Gilmore, Harrison drew heavily from his experience from his entanglement with the IRS. He gave Bob Geldof “meticulous advice” to ensure that Live Aid’s estimated £50 million found its way, as intended, to victims of the Ethiopian famine.

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh 5

Even more critical than the money that was raised from the concert, however, was the widespread support it garnered for the fledgeling nation of Bangladesh.

Suddenly, everyone was talking about a nation that had for so long been desperately seeking to break-through the near radio silence of the media.

Equally important, was how the endeavour redefined the role of the artist from one who was bound by a sacred contract with the audience to produce art that was good, to one who was expected to stand against injustice and use one’s voice to proclaim the unspoken truths of the world aloud.

In a year in which the press was rightfully decrying “the motives of the musicians and the level of the audiences, with each neo-Woodstock more avaricious than the last”, the Concert for Bangladesh, -was –to paraphrase the editors of Rolling Stone – through the sheer splendor of its music and the wholesomeness of its motive,proof that the spirit of music was well and alive.